by Eve Toliman
I grieved so much. I saw you pale and fearing. That was in dream. And your soul rang. All softly my soul sounded with it, and both souls sang themselves: I suffered. Then peace came deep in me. I lay in the silver heaven between dream and day. -- Rainer Maria Rilke (translation by Herter Norton)
Ira was an old family friend, one of the last people who had known my father. At the end of his memorial service, Ira’s colleague stood at the podium and said “We’re alive as long as those who remember us live.” I shuddered. I might end up alone with my father after all. Sorry, Papa. Who would want to be kept alive as a burden? I wish it were different but no matter how I come at it, it always ends up heavy.
Ira was a prominent psychologist who, ironically, got to watch one of his best friends, my father, incarcerated in various insane asylums until the cycle finally ended in 1969. Two days before Neil Armstrong took a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind, my father killed himself. After her father’s service, Ira’s daughter Joanne and I stole away for a precious hour alone. We had a drink at Jake’s Place and hurriedly caught up. How can you cram a year or more into a stolen hour? It’s what we’ve been doing for the past couple of decades, feeding our friendship on snatches of conversation, our words like contraband passed furtively and desperately between us.
In the streets nearby, thousands of demonstrators were protesting a US invasion in Iran while Joanne told me about her new book coming out in a couple of months on the cost of the war in Iraq. We sat at a sticky table over pastrami-on-rye and Irish coffee. We reminisced about her father and our childhoods. We swapped stories about our siblings, and fretted and glowed about our children.
Then she told me what Ira had told her to explain the enigma of my father, that brilliant flash of a man who seared into everything and everyone around him until he spontaneously combusted at age 42. Ira told Joanne that as a teenager my father was imprisoned as a spy in his Nazi-occupied home country of Norway. (This much I knew.) The Nazis said he worked in the Norwegian underground. (Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Most Norwegians resisted in some way or another; not all of them were in the underground. My mother told me the Nazis were never able to prove he was a spy and, as far as I knew, my father never claimed it.) He suffered from PTSD because while imprisoned he was gang-raped by a group of Nazis. (What?! No, no, no, no…) How many people have played Stingo to my parents’ version of Sophie and Nathan? How many were captivated by the spells my father wove and the changing stories my mother told? How many people were bewitched by the bright glamour they spun around themselves to ward off a final meaninglessness that threatened to obliterate them at any moment?
There is a certain nobility in being heinously abused by the unquestionably bad while doing unquestionable good. The reality I know is usually a lot murkier. Both my parents were traumatized by World War II, my mother as a child in Nazi Germany and my father as a teenager in occupied Norway. But I fear my father’s real nightmare grew from seeds planted long before the war, much closer to his heart, by hands that cared for him, too. Perhaps he told Ira, his trusted friend, a bit of the spirit of the truth without yet being able to broach the actual details of the truth.
Ten years ago I met his younger cousin, Ingvild, when I went back to Norway to bury my father’s middle sister. Ingvild looked like a tiny, slightly shriveled version of my father. His dashing features looked a bit hawkish and severe on the small woman’s face. Together we revisited that year when I was four, when my family lived outside of Oslo in a small cabin among the trolls that populate the Scandinavian woods. The outhouse froze solid in the winter. The flowers rioted in the spring. Ingvild was a teenager then. She told me that when she visited my parents during that year, she cowered in the corner like a mouse. She watched them with their friends, eating, drinking, arguing and laughing with a gusto that fascinated and terrified her. She said she never met anyone like them, before or since.
Was he really gang-raped? My parents told so many stories, embellishing, omitting, and adjusting facts to construct a picture of themselves and their lives they could tolerate as they searched for a truth resilient enough to withstand the horrors of our institutions and ideas; for a truth that would justify their belief in a humanity that had betrayed them.
When I was pregnant with my first-born child, both my parents already dead for many years, my father’s eldest sister suggested that I name my daughter after his twin. (What?!) Oh yes, he had a twin. Evline died before their first birthday. (Even our names entwine. I’m tied like a dog on a chain, my neck strong and raw from the endless tug of unknown ghosts.) He never told us he had a twin. My mother didn’t know either. She would have told us. Could she also not have known the truth of what happened to him in that jail? Was he ashamed to admit to the woman who bore his children that his budding virility had been appropriated for — what? That’s just it: for nothing. Just because it’s what power does, dominates and degrades as an end in itself — meaningless harm, pointless pain.
I got home from Ira’s memorial service just in time to whisk my son to his basketball game. I sat in the gym, still in funeral attire like some kind of vampire. I watched two full courts of 12 and 13 year old boys competing hard. Appropriately dressed family members cheered them on. Could it really have happened? The boys were running, blocking and shooting while these worm-thoughts crumbled my brain. Two realities superimposed. The gymnasium filled with gaunt prisoners wearing dirty, drab clothes en route from one foul place to another. I focused on now-time and clearly saw the boys playing on shiny wood floors in clean clothes. I heard their shoes squeak as they ran back and forth. I focused on ghost-time and the shouts and lights became cold and harsh. I heard orders shrieked from hard hearts efficiently sealed against the pain they inflicted on gray brothers and sisters with bright eyes.
The darkness in our hearts uses the exact same things as the light: our gathering places and our camaraderie commandeered for harm instead of joy, to humiliate and destroy instead of uplift and create; our devotion and our loyalty twisted to serve fear. We get to decide which way it falls, each of us. These ghosts live among us, prodding us to remember, urging us to celebrate our communion without ever neglecting that still, small voice within ourselves. It’s the voice of our own conscience, the only voice that humanity ever has or ever will have. It’s the voice that whispers to each of us, intimately, and when we consent, it’s the voice that speaks through each of us telling the same story over and over, but completely fresh and new each time.
My parents rammed into life hard. They thrashed and careened, dragging us behind them like a game of crack-the-whip. They paid and we paid and our children pay for this expensive tactic. But they survived, for a while, and we learned their ways. They neither fully embraced nor fully abandoned things as they appear to be. They poked and prodded everything, questioning and considering and constructing their own understanding as they went. They used situations and events as building blocks in their Watts Tower monuments to life. While the reign of hell drove beauty underground and bled senselessness over everything, they appropriated what was available — bits of anything — to create rather than destroy. They never succumbed to power. They struggled to hear the true voice within themselves and to express something real. They were not well adjusted. As my German uncle said to his own teenage daughter when she accused him of being abnormal, “If I were normal, I’d be a Nazi.”
I will never know what really happened. The ghosts of my parents and countless others assemble in me and tell me things: the spirit of the truth. I get to fill in the details from bits and pieces of my own life, then and now. I get to tell my own stories, embellishing, omitting, and adjusting facts to fashion, and re-fashion, my own ladder to what’s real. I get to build my own haphazard monuments to life, in homage to my reckless parents, beauty’s fervid crusaders.
Ira’s strange story from the beyond the grave shook me to my core. Whatever happened, my father suffered and today I suffered with him. As I stood in the ruins of what I thought I knew, I felt an endless quiet seep into me.
Today I was alone with my father and I was not afraid.